I applaud Christof Koch for looking with fresh eyes into the puzzle of free will in “Finding Free Will.” He is certainly correct that many of our overt actions are led by brain events we have no awareness of, and this can be a good thing. As William James once remarked, it's a good idea to run from the bear before you have a fully conscious experience of “bear.” Drop a fragile object, and you react without getting tangled up in thought—the latter would be way too slow. But that says little about “the will to action” or the choice to do this or that “freely.”
So the points of Koch's article are well taken, and I am delighted that he has both the courage and skills to pursue a topic that is as important as it is confusing.
The paradox, if there is one, is that I feel—right now—I am freely writing this. That is my internal response at the moment. Who knows what developmental histories in my life also contributed to this “free choice?” So scribble I do.
Neuroscientists and psychologists (and others) are becoming more alert to the fact that many of our critical brain “decisions” are nonconscious ones. The stories we construct come later, and these in themselves may have little to do with the true causal network that has been activated. In our stories we are free. Stories are stories. That may be it. But the phenomenology of sensed freedom is real.
I have no great (if any) insights into this but am delighted that the issues are being explored with the best tools we currently have available. I will not be surprised if, as the result of future analytical efforts, more surprises come down the road. I will be surprised if they don't.
John C. Fentress
Eugene, Ore.commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind
LIFTED BY BELIEF
“Healthy Skepticism,” by Sandra Upson, discusses the health and happiness of theists versus atheists in terms of community and like-minded people. Could it be that theists are healthier and happier (at least in part) because religion insulates/isolates the believers from the reality of the world around them? For instance, if you believe that you'll go to heaven, then you might find the unpleasantness of reality less depressing—God is testing you, and you want to pass the test, and this helps you have the strength to overcome the adversities you encounter.
Berkeley Heights, N.J.
The highly interesting article “The Subtle Power of Hidden Messages,” by Wolfgang Stroebe, failed to discuss one important item: the attitudinal effects of mere exposure, especially in those cases where the stimuli are presented either subliminally or masked by some other—distracting—stimuli.
To take just one of many more experiments: in 2004 Karl Szpunar of Harvard University and his colleagues found that music fragments were evaluated more positively the more they had been presented, at least when the subjects had not been listening to the music in a focused way but just heard it incidentally. Other investigators found similar results with polygons, photographs and other images that were administered subliminally.
Advertising in magazines and show bills in the street may work the same way. It's not necessary that people read the messages. They probably don't even know which panels they have passed on the way to their office. But they may have noticed them incidentally, and so the repeated exposure gradually has been turning their attitude toward the positive. When they need something later on, the more positive attitude toward this particular product or brand name can (in addition to other influences, like the packing color) unconsciously influence the choice they make.